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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Today’s a Good Time to Plant, Tend and Hug Trees

Those who find little or no pleasure in gardening often focus their nurturing instincts on trees, shrubs and other longer-lived plants, figuring perennial species need less attention.

Sigh. Time exposes naive assumptions. The trouble with trees, shrubs and bushes is that we grow fond of them as individuals, fret about their long-term care, and finally concede their longevity is as uncertain as our own. Assuming they survive early assaults by teenagers wielding weedwhackers, they can’t let down their guard even as their bark thickens.

During adolescence they can still get browsed by deer, girdled by mice or rabbits, or rubbed bare by bucks. And at nearly every turn they could be beset by insects or disease – foreign and domestic.

We’re reminded of that every time we inspect the seldom-used buckpole at Tom Heberlein’s shack in Ashland County. Tall, healthy spruce trees once held and sheltered the pole, but spruce budworms killed them all. The pole’s still there, of course, but the spruce trunks are bare, and capped at 12 feet.

Heavy sigh.

Not only that, but pet trees often get crowded or snuffed out by exotic plants, charred by runaway grassfires, or cut down by road crews or fretting neighbors. One man’s roof menace or roadside hazard is another man’s shade tree or historical marker.

Therefore, if you’re a sentimental sort, you might do better tending corn, carrots, zinnias or sunflowers. When annuals fail, there’s another spring and a new packet of seeds.

Or maybe the secret is taking satisfaction in tree hugging’s turmoils. Besides reading tips on pruning and planting — and scaring the sap out of loved ones with advisories on insects and blights — it might be wise to read a chapter a day from “Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin’s Famous and Historic Trees.”

This book by arborist R. Bruce Allison was first published in 1982 and brought back for a second edition in 2005 by the Wisconsin Historical Press. I stumbled across it again last week while trying to find a childhood book I misplaced on my shelves.

I had forgotten I owned it. “Hmm. What’s this about? Oh yeah. Now I remember. That’s a good book.”

“Every Root an Anchor” features Wisconsin’s most unusual, significant and historical trees. As one sales pitch read: “From magnificent elms to beloved pines to Frank Lloyd Wright’s oaks, these trees are woven into our history, contributing to our sense of place. They are anchors for time-honored customs, manifestations of our ideals, and reminders of our lives’ most significant events.”

I get that. Whenever seeing photos from our kids’ youths here in Waupaca, I compare the background trees to what they’ve become today. There’s Karsyn with her junior prom date in 2005 with two “teenage” white pines behind them, their leaders only 5 feet above the kids' shoulders. Fifteen years later, one of those pines is long dead, and the other is pruning its head-high branches just behind Karsyn’s date. And when I look farther behind them I see shoulder-high white cedars that now stand 20 to 25 feet high.

But back to Allison’s book: Flip to almost any page and you’ll find something inspiring about trees. Its dedication includes a thought from Washington Irving’s “Forest Trees”: “He who plants an oak looks forward to future ages and plants for posterity. Nothing can be less selfish. He cannot expect to sit in its shade or enjoy its shelter; but he exults in the idea that the acorn which he has buried in the earth shall grow up into a lofty pile, and shall keep on flourishing, and increasing, and benefiting mankind, long after he shall have ceased to tread his paternal fields.”

In other words, as my good buddy Doug Duren says of his family’s farm near Cazenovia: “It’s not ours. It’s just our turn.”

Allison’s book describes past and present Wisconsin trees used by vigilantes to hang murderers, recruiters to enlist Civil War soldiers, and activists to protect the tree itself. And because our state holds abundant trees and tree species, Allison must have done extensive pruning to settle on these select stories.

I’m sure some will read the book and feel slighted because Allison didn’t include their town’s enduring bur oak, or a long-lost American elm that once graced their square. The author holds the trump card, however. He can always say, “I’ll consider your tree for the next edition.”

Local know-it-alls might miss the book’s true value. It’s full of tree-inspired antidotes for the daily worries brought on by oak wilt, needle blight, gypsy moths, spruce budworms, tent caterpillars, Dutch elm fungus, jack-pine budworms, pine-shoot beetles, Asian Ladybeetles and the dreaded “Legislator Larvae,” which dwell in the state Capitol. The latter, of course, gets blamed whenever a large oak outside the Capitol suffers a broken limb.

And those are just a few of the diseases and insects known to threaten our woodlands. Even if you’re not much interested in trees for their inherent values, please realize their economic importance. About 46% of Wisconsin’s land area, or 16 million acres, is considered forestland. That includes many “certified forests,” which gives Wisconsin an edge in world marketplaces for wood and wood products, underscoring the importance of managing for sustainable growth.

Unfortunately, our wooded wealth faces nonstop threats. As we know, the emerald ash borer continues to devastate the state and region’s ash trees, and those Legislator Larvae relentlessly keep whacking budgets to hamper control efforts.

Now is a good time to give that big ol’ ash tree a hug, and the young and middle-aged ones, too. Their futures look as gloomy as the elm’s.

A row of towering spruce trees once held and sheltered the buck pole at Tom Heberlein’s shack in Ashland County. Spruce budworms killed the trees, which are now capped about 12 feet high.Patrick Durkin photo

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